View Full Version : 34 ruined negatives - the great mistery

mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 09:32

on july 9, 2014, i developed a large batch of 4x5 negatives.
they were part of a project that i had been working on since the month of May.

in all, i had 34 exposures on Portra 400 iso.

the negatives were stored in the same place where i have been keeping them for the last four years.
there was nothing different in the way i handled the film compared to the other hundreds of 4x5 negatives i have shot so far.

however, all of the negatives were ruined by some mysterious over-exposure to light.
i have attached some examples for your reference.

they are all panoramas of the parks in my city.

needless to say, i lost two months of work.
however, going beyond that, i am trying to come to an understanding of what happened.

in the process, i came up with a few possible explanations.

1. the negatives were damaged before they were placed in the film holder.

(this might have been possible, i thought. i kept the negatives in a fridge full of food and at some point the kodak cardboard pack smelled of pork steak. i also had also two bottles of chemicals four months ago in the fridge, but they were tightly capped. during the past year i never noticed any damage on the negatives. during the development process i took two test shots from my balcony with the same setup i used for the damaged negatives. the two identical shots came out perfect. they all came from the same fridge. so it's not the unexposed negatives.)

2. the negatives were damaged inside the camera, while shooting.

(this could be possible as well, but less likely in the given time-frame of two months. the same kind of damage should be consistent across the negatives, and it also should show up in more recent photos. however, the two identical test shots came out perfect. this means that the camera and the holders are not the problem, and neither is the development process.)

3. the negatives were damaged during the unloading of the film holders.

(i converted my bathroom into a darkroom. i have been using this setup for four years now, and it never failed. at the same time, i have been unloading negatives from the film holders in the past two months at different times, with random numbers of negatives. had something occurred during the darkroom unloading stage, the damage should have been random as well. some of the negatives should have not been damaged at all.

if there was a consistent flaw in the darkroom, the test shots should have been damaged, and they were not, so it's not the darkroom.)

4. the negatives were damaged during the development process

(the tank might have had a light leak, for instance. also, the over-exposure pattern on the negatives does not suggest light coming through the top of the tank and hitting the curved surface of the film. the negative damage is quite geometric, square even, which rules out damage within the tank, where it would have been somewhat curved in shape. moreover, the two test shots deny this possibility, as there was no damage due to the development process.)

5. the negatives were damaged by the stabilizer or by the wetting agent, or by switching one with the other

(at some point during that day, i forgot for a second which tray was which. i pretend to have recovered afterwards, and to have placed things in the right sequence. even so, the negatives were black all over out of the tank, way before this stage, so it is out of the question that the damage occurred on this level.)

6. the negatives were damaged in their kodak cardboard boxes

(after exposing a shot and unloading, i put all my negatives back in their original packaging, and then seal it with tape. it seems highly likely that something happened at this point.

we are at the stage where i am still shooting and negatives pile up in their boxes after they have been exposed.
as all the images have been damaged, one could assume that the damage occurred at the end of the shooting period.

i started to work on the project on March 21 and stopped working on July 2.
the negatives were developed on July 9.

my guess is that something happened between July 2 and July 9.

but what did happen? how can four unopened, sealed kodak film boxes, as well as two unloaded film holders, containing 34 negatives altogether get damaged in the drawer?

a) radiation from a neighbor

living on the 7th floor, i thought that my neighbor downstairs might have some source of radiation, that could damage film. however, the negatives are all damaged, but to a varying extent. some of them came out completely black. the four different boxes seemed to be more damaged on the top negative out of a stack of ten. the bottom negative seemed to be almost ok, if one ignored different amounts of fogging.

a source of radiation should have produced a consistent result in the whole stack. three boxes of kodak film over-exposed on the top and not so over-exposed on the bottom deny any consistent radiation of any kind, for the whole stack of boxes.

b) inappropriate storage place

i also considered that there might be something wrong with the drawer where i keep the film.
but that is not possible, because i have been keeping fresh and unloaded, exposed film in that drawer for the past four years.

c) the boxes were opened before development

this seems to be the most plausible explanation. by the look of the negatives it can be said that they were properly exposed. there is some information there from the shooting. however, after being exposed, something happened to all of these exposed negatives, while they were sitting in their boxes.

over time, i have made it a habit to monitor and accept my mistakes, either during shooting or developing. i keep a record of both shooting and developing and of the errors that i make. i sometimes make mistakes of various kinds, but they are punctual, i can observe them and note them down.

this does not seem to be the case.

if it was indeed an error that i made, i should have unconsciously pulled the dark slide on the film holders after exposing each negative.
as funny as that sounds, it is quite impossible, because one might do this a couple of times, not 34 times, not missing one negative.

also, the test shots deny this possibility.

if the setup i use works, as shown by the test, there is no explanation left to my mind than this - the boxes of film were opened in daylight and then closed again. the almost burned negatives on top of each 10-sheet stack, as well as the mostly undamaged bottom negative seem to suggest that. the pattern of the damage is also pointing in the same direction. the negatives were stored in their kodak envelopes. it seems that they were only partially removed from the pack, and this is where the complete over-exposure occurred. there is then a strip of gradient in between, and a more or less undamaged part, that i presume was left inside the envelope.

my question is this.
what do you think about this whole story, and what do you think actually happened?



mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 09:35

mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 09:36

mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 09:39
This is the test shot. It's not very well exposed, nor is it a very good scan, but still it's not the same as the images above.


14-Jul-2014, 10:02
The fogging of the film appears to be in the same pattern as if they were made by the same condition. Do you have any other successful negatives other than the one test negative? It looks kind of like a light leak in the camera or in the holder.

14-Jul-2014, 10:02
7) bellows (or lensboard) light leak

14-Jul-2014, 10:59
Can you post a scan of the negatives, that might help to figure it out.

mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 11:13
I only have this pair which looks closer to normal.


mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 11:20
@ ic-racer: here are some scans.


mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 11:34
@ dr tang: you might be right.

while examining the camera, i discovered one of the screws that holds the bellows was a bit loose.
using a flashlight and an empty holder, i could see some light coming through the crack between the bellows and the back.

i am such a fool i guess.

with all the work done and all the recording of every step, i was shooting with the camera wide open all the time.
in my defense, i have been building a diy 6x17 camera for the past year, and i go back and forth between the one i am building and the one i already have.

in the process, i left my working camera assembled only in part.

mircea nicolae
14-Jul-2014, 11:38
i will test this as soon as i can. one photo with the bellows screws properly assembled, and one with one screw loose.
even by the sound of it, i have a feeling of what the result might be.

without your help i would have continued to think of very fantastic versions for this event.

thank you all for your input.

14-Jul-2014, 12:53
Definitely a light leak.

14-Jul-2014, 13:05

As the owner of three Shen Hao cameras - one of them very much like yours - can I say that you need to spend a lot of time tinkering with the machine to get rid of the light-leak issues and internal reflections. Do not commit to any serious project until you have eliminated issues with plenty of evidence in good photos. These cameras are cheap so you should expect to have issues unfortunately.

Buy some good paper-based flocking material and a sanding pad. I had to sand down the parts around the sheet film holder base to stop light leaks and have glued flocking to all mating surfaces - lensboard base, adapter bases, inside the body etc. etc. It has taken me some time and I still don't feel 110% about it but I don't see any more issues so do be thorough and patient. Killing film is a crime.


John Olsen
14-Jul-2014, 15:25
I'm glad you found your problem. My immediate reaction was that it might be a bellows leak that would not show in the balcony test but would show when you were out in the park. I've failed to lock my bellows correctly before, so you have my condolences.

14-Jul-2014, 16:19
Glad you figured it out. These kinds of things are very frustrating, especially when film is ruined.

I once found one the bellows attachments on the front standard on my Chamonix to be loose. Fortunately, no images were ruined. I now check those attachments every time I go out.


14-Jul-2014, 18:09
I can't believe a country that can't get two mating surfaces flush, thinks they can go to the moon, build airliners, etc. Sheeze.

14-Jul-2014, 18:43
Mircea, allow me to suggest to avoid developing a large number of sheets/rolls at once. A lot a things can go wrong. This time was the camera but the next time could be development.

14-Jul-2014, 20:12
My first thought was that someone opened all of your film holders to see what was inside.

mircea nicolae
15-Jul-2014, 04:39
@ jody_s

that's exactly what i thought. but after finding my bellows was more or less open, i am not so sure anymore.
in about a week or two i will be able to develop some test photos, and the definite answer will be available.

i suspect that open bellows do something to unexposed film.

when i will be able to compare the light patterns of the test with the photos, i will be able to say for sure what it was.

@ onnect17

i usually develop large batches. i did go through unexpected events, like the motor of the Jobo dying on me, but in a way, this is the workflow i am now familiar and comfortable with. my main constraint is the fact that i cannot leave the machine installed, so i have to set it up each time in the living room :)

@ swmcl

i believe shen hao cameras are good quality cameras. but they have to be bought from US vendors like Badger Graphics.
this would mean that they have passed through rigorous quality checks.

my argument for this is the following. my first camera was a HZX 45 II A, bought from Badger Graphics.
it was a great object, and a great tool. a lot better than i had expected, and a lot better than i actually thought of it.
after selling it and buying the new one, i had a bit of a 'a-ha' moment, when i realized that the cheaper, simpler HXZ could actually do almost everything I wanted.

my second camera is a modified version of the TFC 45 II B. i bought it directly from Shen Hao, as a custom order.
what i wanted was for it to have 60 mm lateral shift on the back, which they delivered for 1300 $.

at the time, i believed it was a fair price compared to a used Ebony 45U, which was about 2300 $.
needless to say, i bought a great deal of film with the rest of the money.

however, it did have some issues. the front standard was titled backwards if you looked at it from the side.
this meant that the front and back standard were not parallel to each other.

in the end, i figured out that i could unscrew the base of the standard and remove two metal rails that were, in a way, over-engineered. instead of two there was four of them, meaning two on each side of the rail, and this distorted the front standard rail bed.

don't imagine crooked standards. it was a minor displacement, but it did bother me.
i wrote to them and they basically said i should mind my own business.

so if you do order one from them, maybe do it through a reseller, who has a different relationship with the factory.

i would recommend shen hao cameras to others interested in large format.
i do believe the other companies sell good cameras for absolutely ridiculous prices. three times the actual price if not more.

all of my photos so far were done on shen hao, i exhibited them, i enjoyed taking them, so i would say their cameras do the job as any other would.

chris kleihege
15-Jul-2014, 08:16

I too have used a Shen Hao and loved the thing. I also experienced similar light leaks. My problem came from not reattaching the bellows properly. The two screws that hold the bellows to the frame of the camera must be inserted and tightened into the screw holes of the bellows. The screw holes are quite easy to miss and from the outside, the screws appear to attach the bellows. You can peak into the corners of the camera and bellows and see the screws properly (or improperly) seated. Also making difficult the diagnosis is that when the bellows is compressed (say shooting at infinity), the bellows is pressed into the frame of the camera. The light leak then might close. However, when you extend the bellows, the light leak will widen.

I hope that helps.



John Kasaian
15-Jul-2014, 08:35
Sorry to hear about your calamity! :(